Brett Poirier · Tuesday November 5, 2013
As Matt Kenseth attempts to erase a seven-point deficit to Jimmie Johnson, while he chases Joe Gibbs’ fourth Sprint Cup title this weekend, the driver who claimed Gibbs’ first title may very well make his last start.
Bobby Labonte is a huge reason why Joe Gibbs Racing is where it is today. He took a single-car team that won a Daytona 500 with Dale Jarrett in 1993 and transformed it into a team that consistently contended for wins in the mid-to-late 90s before finally giving Gibbs a title in 2000. Jeff Burton was third in the championship that year, the closest he came to winning a Sprint Cup title.
Labonte’s time with JTG-Daugherty Racing is up on Sunday, while Burton’s time with Richard Childress Racing will end the following week at Homestead. Neither driver knows what the future holds. JTG-Daugherty brought in AJ Allmendinger earlier this season as a measuring stick for the program, and it turned out Labonte wasn’t measuring up. The No. 47 isn’t exactly a sweet ride, but Allmendinger outperformed the former champion in his starts, and earned the spot in the season finale and full-time in 2014.
A similar situation has played out at RCR. Burton’s performance hasn’t measured up to his teammates for the past five years, really, and Childress finally decided to pull the plug. The Caterpillar driver said about a week ago that he still doesn’t have something in place for next season — and at this point, unless it is with Phil Parsons Racing, he won’t have anything.
It’s fitting that Labonte and Burton’s careers are winding down together because they have almost paralleled one another. Just look at their career stats:
Bobby Labonte Jeff Burton
Wins 21 21
Top 5s 115 134
Top 10s 203 254
Starts 717 689
Both drivers started their careers in the middle of the pack, Burton with Stavola Brothers Racing and Labonte with Bill Davis, before finally catching a break with more established teams. Labonte broke out and won three races 1995 with Gibbs, and Burton won three in 1997 with Jack Roush Racing. From 1998-2001, Burton and Labonte were two of the best the sport had to offer. They combined to win 27 races in that span.
Labonte became the model for consistency in Cup. In 1999, he finished in the top five 23 times and still lost the title to Dale Jarrett. He came back in 2000 and won five races — the most he had in any season — including the Brickyard 400 on the way to the championship. Burton won the Coca Cola 600 and Southern 500 in those same years. In 2000 at New Hampshire, he led all 300 laps of the race. Labonte was second.
New NASCAR fans (that’s kind of an oxymoron) know these guys as back-of-the-pack performers, but in their primes, they were two of the best. Some might argue one or both are Hall-of-Fame worthy. I’d classify them both as borderline. They both were elite drivers, won major events (Labonte won a title), but they also lack the longevity of many Hall-of-Fame caliber drivers. I’m not talking about number of years in the sport (that might make Kyle Petty and Michael Waltrip Hall-of-Famers), I’m talking about truly competitive years. Labonte’s competitive years were ’95 to ’04, while Burton’s were ’97-’02 and ’06-’08. Is that long enough for a Hall-of-Famer?
For anyone who would argue it’s not, I remind you that Jarrett is already in the Hall and his competitive years are nearly identical to Labonte’s. The only real difference between them is Jarrett had 11 more wins.
Either way, hopefully when Labonte and Burton are up for nomination, they are remembered for what they did early in their careers and not penalized for the lack of success in the last decade. Labonte finished outside the top 20 in points with Gibbs in ’05 and left for an inferior team, Richard Petty Motorsports the next season. In 2009, he landed with Hall-of-Fame Racing, which didn’t prove to be Hall-of-Fame caliber despite the name. In 2010, he raced for TRG Motorsports before joining JTG Daugherty in 2011.
For Labonte, it certainly has been a tough road to just stay in the sport. He’s a shell of the driver he was once was. Late in the race at Martinsville, he reminded me of the old man who turns on to the highway exit ramp, thinking it’s the entrance. He looked lost.
Burton’s been more competitive (in better equipment, too), but he is also just a shell of his former self. He has 17 top 10s combined in the last three seasons. He had 23 each in ’98 and ’99. He was 24th at Texas and has placed outside the top 20 in three of the last four races without any mechanical issues.
This could very well be the end of their careers, but they could also drag out a little longer. Labonte might follow in the footsteps of brother, Terry, and Bill Elliot; two former champs not afraid to jump in any hunk of junk until they turn 75. I’d be surprised if Burton does the same, especially considering he has a son coming up in the sport. No matter what they do next, their careers have long been over.
Here’s what we should remember: Burton and Bobby Labonte’s dominance in the late 90s and early 2000s. If it wasn’t for them, Jeff Gordon might have 110 wins right now. How they were instrumental in building two of the sport’s elite organizations, Gibbs and Roush Fenway.
Above all else, remember the class that Burton and Labonte conducted themselves with throughout their careers. Sure, they had run-ins with other drivers, but they always raced with grace. They were respected leaders in the garage area whose presences will be missed if they aren’t in Daytona next February.
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